I followed the road to Damascus and was converted

Syria's capital is a laid-back place crammed with spectacular sights. Robert Mighall rises above the politics

Syria had long been on my wish list, but for different reasons it was constantly being pushed on to next year's schemes.

Syria had long been on my wish list, but for different reasons it was constantly being pushed on to next year's schemes. With George "Dubya" Bush imposing sanctions - Syria and Israel being none too friendly - a visit suddenly appeared more urgent. Urgency brought apprehension, along with a concern that UK foreign policy might have made any Briton an object of hostility there. Yet I found a wonderfully friendly and welcoming people, and one of the safest, most relaxing cities I have ever visited.

Damascus claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (as does its northern rival Halab). From the Amorites (2,000BC) to the Ottoman Empire and then on to the French, who were awarded the government of Syria as a League of Nations mandate between the two world wars, waves of civilisations have been seduced by this "bride of the desert" and the "mother of all cities". It is said that the prophet Mohammed refused to enter this earthly paradise so as not to anticipate the splendours of the heavenly one that awaited him.

The Syrian capital is held to be the fourth holiest place in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. It boasts a number of important shrines and tombs, including that of Saladin, the scourge of Christendom and adversary of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-1192).

The old city and the narrow streets around the Umayyad Great Mosque (the first to use minarets when it was built in 705) are constantly thronged with crowds of bearded or burqa-clad pilgrims. The Great Mosque is an impressive monument of Islamic art, and contains numerous shrines and relics, including what is considered to be the head of John the Baptist. But it had none of the self-conscious hush that characterises some Anglican churches.

A party mood prevailed. In the great courtyard children blissfully whooped after pigeons, while gaggles of gossiping black-clad women made a fine day out of it as they picnicked under the ancient towering arcades, or attempted to eat huge ice-creams smothered with pistachios (a local speciality) while remaining devoutly decorous.

Damascus seems almost designed to stimulate the senses - a place of sweetmeats, perfumes and evocative music floating across the ancient rooftops on bright moonlit nights. In the square in front of the Great Mosque men sell crushed blackberries cooled by ice which is shaved from huge blocks; or kohl-black liquorice drinks flavoured with tamarisk poured from ornate pewter urns strapped to their backs.

One night I followed the sound of loud Arabic music up some stairs to a restaurant overlooking the Great Mosque. The only obvious tourist there, I lolled on a divan and enjoyed a never-ending banquet complete with water pipes, and spontaneous displays of dancing that continued into the small hours without a whiff of alcohol needed.

Since the miraculous conversion of the former Christian-basher Paul on the road to the city, Damascus has also been significant in the Christian mind and retains substantial Greek Orthodox and Armenian congregations. According to a Muslim antiques dealer whose shop happened to be in the Christian quarter to the east of the old City, the two communities continue to exist harmoniously as they have for the past 1,200 years.

If a Syrian knows only one word of English it is "welcome". I got used to expecting it along with a genuine warmth and pride that people communicated about their country and city, and their wish to share it with visitors. There is, evidently, an awareness that tourism is beneficial, but without the cynicism or opportunism that an advanced tourist infrastructure often acquires.

Visitor numbers have plummeted since the terror attacks of 9/11 and their inflammatory aftermath. But it was great not to feel part of a cattle train, and not to be an object of either curiosity or hostility. I even watched as two young blonde girls in strappy T-shirts walked past a group of Syrian lads who did not even give them a glance (which would almost constitute a miracle in much of southern Europe).

Experiences in North Africa and Turkey had made the words "souk" and "hassle" inseparable. But here there were no fake guides and little risk of being dragged into some tat-monger's emporium simply because I had ventured too close. So I could relax, drop my guard, and just hang out and soak up the atmosphere among the numerous souks that cluster around the Great Mosque and that have made Damascus a centre of commerce synonymous with luxury for more than a millennium. Damask cloth and rose water are merely the most famous examples of what made this major trading post on the ancient Silk Route justly renowned for opulence. The souks, especially the Buzuriye bazaar dedicated to spices, perfumes and sweetmeats, were the highlight of my visit and I found myself returning day after day.

Partitioned according to their various goods, and encompassing numerous mosques and ancient baths, these narrow bustling lanes afford a real sense of venerable continuity without any suspicion of touristic display. This pageant of commercial and human interaction more truly bore witness to the antiquity of the city than its "monumental" legacy, which is sadly somewhat patchy.

I rambled freely around the old khans (trading emporia, now mostly dilapidated and used as storehouses), and solemnly shook hands with the children who minded them. Scrambling up a set of rickety wooden stairs to a gallery overlooking a vine-clad courtyard, I was nearly overpowered by the fumes of cardamom, pepper and rose that the very fabric of the building was infused with after centuries of use.

And then to the hammams or Turkish baths dotted around the city. After a hard day pounding the sun-scorched streets, or dodging the carts and cyclists hell bent on collision in the souks, there is nothing to beat being soaped, scraped and slapped in a steam-filled ancient structure. Each sunset, as the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, I gave myself up to a pure oriental reverie at Nur ud-Din hammam, the oldest in the city. Hedonism and relaxation: a perfect expression of what this eternal city for both the senses and the soul has to offer.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Damascus from £160.

The Imaginative Traveller (01473 667337; www.imaginative-escapes.com) offers city breaks and escorted itineraries around Syria. A three-night break in Damascus starts at £342 per person, based on two sharing, and includes return flights from Heathrow and b&b accommodation.

Where to stay

The Omayad Hotel (00 963 11 221 7700; www.omayadhotel.net) offers double rooms from $94 (£52) per night, without breakfast.

Further information

All visitors to Syria are required to obtain a visa, which costs £32 and is valid for three months (0870-005 6978; http://syria.embassyhomepage.com). Also see www.syriatourism.org.

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